“The film was originally just going to be about the Arizona side of the story,” filmmaker Matthew Heineman says about his documentary, Cartel Land. This comes as a surprising piece of information since the heart of the narrative, which is up for an Academy Award for Best Documentary Film at this year’s Oscars, really lies across the border, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. Cartel Land is a gripping recount of two civilian groups who, believing the State has failed them, have taken it upon their hands to arm themselves in protection against the ongoing cartel violence and its effects both in Mexico and in the United States, respectively. Heineman, who spent close to nine months filming in the frontlines of turbulent Michoacán, talked to us about his current mind state, the Autodefensa groups of Mexico, and the complexity of humanity.
NeueJournal: What was the intention with showing the duality between the border side in Arizona and in Michoacán, Mexico?
Matthew Heineman: I was fascinated by what drives men and women to take up arms and what provokes them to “take the law into their own hands.” The film wasn’t originally intended to be this dual portrait, it was just going to be about the Arizona side of the story. I filmed there for about four months, then I heard about the vigilante movement in Michoacán down in Mexico, known as “Autodefensas.” Right when I heard this story I decided to make this sort of parallel portrait, which some people interpret to be mirror images of each other, when in reality they’re quite different.
At the heart of both of these movements are two men, who are the main characters of this film; Tim “Nailer” Foley on the U.S. side, and Doctor José Manuel Mireles on the Mexican side. They’re both 55 years old, they both believe the government has failed them, and they both have “taken the law in their hands” to fight for what they believe in. But their circumstances are quite different. In Mexico, the violence is real. It’s visceral. A hundred thousand plus people have been killed and over twenty-five thousand people have disappeared since 2007. Whereas in Arizona that type of violence is not happening; it’s more of a fear that these Mexican drug wars will seep their way across the border.
NJ: There’s a binary of people who think what the Autodefensa groups are doing is right and those who think what they’re doing is wrong. Would you join the Autodefensas if you were a member of these towns?
MH: Now, or in the beginning of the movement? The story changed a lot, and the perception of the Autodefensas and what they’re doing changed a lot too. I think that’s one of the things that really drove me to make this film, the questions of, “what would I do? What would you do? What would the audience do?” Challenging your beliefs of what is right and what is wrong and whether or not it’s right to fight violence with violence. That’s one of the things that really pushed me. What would I do if my sister was raped or my brother was hanging from a bridge? Would I pick up arms? Is that right? Is that just? Is vigilantism sustainable? These are questions that plagued me and pushed me and drove me to make this film.
NJ: The intense reality shown about the perception of the Autodefensas throughout the documentary – and in real life – causes one to ask those questions. Based off of this growth and change that you saw, do you think people can be simply either “heroes” or “villains?”
MH: I didn’t have any preconceived goals or intentions at all when making this film. I wanted to let the story and the complexity of human nature evolve naturally. At first it did seem like the lines between “good” and “evil” were stark; that it was everyday citizens rising up to fight against the evil cartel, but obviously over time that changed. These lines between “good” and “evil” became even more blurry, which fascinated me. I kept going down there until I understood, or tried to understand, what this movement was really about and how this story was going to end up. I don’t know if my vision of “good” and “bad” changed. I think so many documentaries put issues and people in neat little boxes, and you walk away feeling like you understand something because it’s so starkly drawn, but I don’t think that’s really how life works. I really wanted to embrace the complexity of humanity – embrace the really murky world of vigilantism and what I was seeing.
NJ: With a topic as fiery and sensitive as this, how do you think you can portray reality with the least bias as possible?
MH: Every time you turn on the camera, change lenses, shoot one person versus another, or push a button in the editing room, you’re injecting subjectivity; but I’m not in the film and my beliefs aren’t in the film. My goal was to not shape the narrative in a way that’s sort of fulfilling a preconceived notion or belief status, rather, to allow the story to evolve organically and to tell the story as honestly and truthfully as possible. That was my goal and that’s why I spent so much time down there. I was there for one or two weeks a month for almost nine months, getting very intimate with my characters and letting the story evolve. Hopefully by doing that I was able to get to some level of understanding which allowed me to tell the story in as honest and truthful way as possible.
NJ: What propels you to create documentaries over narrative films? Is there an interest in narrative films you haven’t been able to carry out?
MH: I stumbled into filmmaking after getting rejected from Teach For America, and had come up with this idea to drive around the U.S. for three months trying to understand what kids my age are about. I bought a videocamera and taught myself as I went. I fell in love with filmmaking and decided this was something I wanted to do. I have no formal training, but I feel very lucky to tell people’s stories and to enter a world that I would otherwise never get to see. I feel very lucky to do what I do and I also feel a huge duty and obligation to tell important stories. I want to keep doing that, whether it’s in a form of narrative or whether I continue to make documentaries. I don’t view documentaries as a gateway drug to making narrative films. I love making them; I think they are a powerful art form and I believe deeply in them. Maybe at some point down the line I’ll make a narrative; who knows? But at this point I’m very happy doing what I’m doing.
NJ: You’ve dealt with really important subjects in your work, whether it’s healthcare, the reality of America, and, of course, the topic of drug related violence. What is the biggest challenge of going back to a “diurnal reality” after engaging in the worlds of your subjects?
MH: It depends on the film. This film in particular made it very hard to transition from what I was witnessing and what I was experiencing back to “real life.” This film had a profound impact on me and forever changed me as a person. If your films don’t change you, then I don’t think you’re necessarily doing a good job or becoming intimate enough with the subject matter. Hopefully everything – every life experience – changes you, and affects you, and you learn and grow and can perceive the world in a new or different way. At least that’s my idea.
NJ: What is your current state of mind?
MH: I’m so excited. I feel very honored and humbled by this nomination, and also very honored to have received a George Polk journalism award just a couple days ago. I’m just really grateful because this recognition further puts a spotlight on the film and on the issues in it. You know, the suffering of the people in Mexico and the cycle of violence that’s perpetuated by this drug war, with the hope that by shedding light on it a conversation will ignite.
Portrait Photography: Harris Mizrahi for NeueJournal
Stills from Cartel Land courtesy of The Orchard